Chinese Scholar's Garden

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A zig zag or winding course serves several purposes. It allows the walker to avoid negative, straight line forces. The clever designer can use it to expand a gardener, since the path periodically forces the viewer's attention to his or her footing. The walker looks down momentarily and upon looking up after the slight turn, is presented with an all-new perspective. 

Chinese Scholar's Garden

Snug Harbor Botanical Garden, Staten Island

Nature's mighty law is change.

- Robert Burns -

If Burns is right, then Chinese garden designers have executed a clever, very long-drawn joke. For several thousand years they have maintained a consistent view on gardens: Love nature but do not try to master or change it.

So, Mr. Burns: In their constancy, have they been perpetrating the unnatural?

These are the kinds of thoughts a visit to a Chinese Scholar's garden might be expected to incite. Contemplation of Nature, meditation and a communion with "the way", the standard directing principle of the universe, is the purpose of such a garden. The "conversation" with a poet across 200+ years is also appropriate, since it is traditional to contemplate poetry inscribed on the garden's walls and other surfaces, and respond by composing poetry of your own.

Built, more than planted
Leave negativity behind
Plant symbolism
Making you look again
Slow down
More Chinese gardens

A Chinese garden is built, planting is less important.

Its key elements are stone, water, and architecture, followed by plants and poetry.

When I walked through this garden I appreciated many of its elements on several levels and felt I could study its details for days and years. That makes it a very successful example of this ancient design tradition, meant to honor contrasting natural forces and bow to infinity by endlessly expanding a small space with intriguing detail.

Look at it. I hope my pictures help you grasp these concepts, or inspire you to go experience them yourself.


Leave negativity behind you

Feng shui - literally, wind water, natural energies -- holds that negative currents flow in straight lines. Thus there are deflecting walls just inside entries and paths do not follow straight lines. This disrupts and bars evil energy from the garden.

See the curve in this path? Although it's not as markedly non-straight as the zig zag bridge at the top of the page, it's effective in achieving Feng Shui objectives.



Plant symbolism

Plants are not as important as water and stone in the traditional Chinese garden, but they are essential as markers of seasonal rhythms and conveyances for symbolic messages.

  • Mums can symbolize long life
  • Peonies are a cure
  • Banana is self improvement
  • Delicate cherry blossoms on a stark, bare branch represent the duel female-male forces, yin-yang
  • Bamboo, versatile and able to bend without breaking, signifies righteousness
  • Pines speak of time

Given bamboo's traditional meaning, it is pleasing to walk into the garden along a bamboo path._DSC2380.jpg

Add pine/time and water plus rock as the yin-yang balance of the universe, and the thoughtful viewer can go in many directions in looking out along this line.




Look again, anew!

One of the designer's goals is to provide a visitor to the garden with many views, and to present them in a way that's like a scrolled painting being unrolled. So every door and "ling" or "leaky window" deliberately frames a view.


This way of viewing a garden turns a single area into many rooms.

(Click on small images to enjoy more detail.)

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Slow down, you're moving too fast _DSC2399.jpg

Humpback bridges (click small images for more detail) are one way to make a person pause and look down to check his or her footing. The designer anticipates the visitor's pause, and plans a changed view for that next step, the look up.

A change in paving is another device that causes a person to look down, and provides a chance for the designer to switch perspective. The change can be drastic -- a natural slab breaks a tiled pattern -- or much more subtle. It may be visual, tactile, or both. It may or may not be at an expected point of change, such as at a doorway or as you step through the round arch called a moon gate. Mosaic pattern walks are deliberately bumpy so the walker reads by foot and glances down when the feel is new. Can you see the change or imagine the feel of the changes I caught in these pictures?

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Scholar rocks_DSC2479.jpg

The curious, weathered stones here are Lake Tai stones, also called Chinese Scholar's rocks or tax refund stones -- after an emperor waived taxes for those who transported the stones for his garden project.

As huge boulders or as pocket sized pebbles in the miniature dish gardens called peng-jing, they've been integral parts of most Chinese gardens for about six centuries, since the Ming Dynasty.

They come from in and around an enormous lake in the Yangtze Delta, a landform and rock type that may date back 70 million years to a meteor impact. A stone's convoluted form is prized but carving is frowned upon. However, it can be acceptable to choose a stone, chisel a minor change, then put it back into the lake to be naturally smoothed of all tooling marks before it's used by a great grandchild.



A Scholar's garden must have living quarters, library and study, and perhaps a small reception area. Other, grander Chinese gardens might have dozens of buildings for retired servants, poets in residence, meeting rooms and visitors' quarters. The various buildings are connected by covered walkways, meant to be used every day of the year.

Decorative trim and railings, like mosaic paving patterns and path routes, are many and distinctive. Consider: Plum blossoms on cracked ice, playing cats. A pattern conveys meaning to the learned gardener, and multiple elements combine to add nuance.

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A building that extends over a lake represents infinity and may be called a Xie (say Shi -eh).



More Chinese gardens

This is one of only a few public gardens in the traditional Chinese style in North America. We hope you will take time to see it when you visit New York, or look for these elements in another Chinese Garden near you. We have enjoyed:

We were glad to be able to see the beginnings of the Seattle Chinese Garden


We have heard great reviews of:

If you know of others and send us a review, we'll add it to this report so others can add them to their travel plans.